And so they’ve done it. The Warriors’ home game winning streak was snapped by the Boston Celtics today, avenging a double-overtime dogfight earlier in the season. The Celtics overcame the typical superhuman shooting from Steph Curry in the 3rd quarter, at times matching him shot-for-shot to hold on preciously to their slim lead until the end.
But even prior to this historical upset, Boston were having a successful season by recent measure. Now standing at 44-32 with the 6th seed in the East, they could finish anywhere between the 3rd to 6th seed when all 82 games are played. Meaning their likely 1st round opponents could be Miami, Atlanta, Detroit. Miami aside, I’d pick them over either of the other 2 teams. Coach Brad Stevens has molded a group of role players into a well-oiled machine who play within one of the best defensive systems in the league. On offense, they are led by a sparkplug in Isaiah Thomas, who was electric and went mano-i-mano with Steph Curry , scoring 18 points in the 3rd quarter of the upset.
GM Danny Ainge seems to be reaching the tipping point of his rebuilding efforts. Ever since the title-winning team of KG, Pierce and Allen were disbanded, Boston were dead-focused on stockpiling assets, young players and draft picks. Normally, this approach takes a while and the assets more often than not don’t turn out to be what you expected, just ask the Philadelphia 76ers. But Boston, under the guidance of one of the best coaches in the league, and certainly the best young coach in my books, have seen their young guys develop and come together into a very solid unit.
Avery Bradley is a coach’s dream in today’s NBA. A role player who specializes in 2 things and does them to a high level: draining threes and playing perimeter D. Bradley is probably one of the top 10 shooting guards in the league at doing those things, and is just a great team player overall. Jae Crowder, a bench player on a stronger Mavs team, has evolved into the Celtics own Kawhi Leonard-lite, at times looking like the engine of the whole Celtics system. Add Marcus Smart and you have 3 top-tier perimeter defenders in a league where offenses are moving further away from the basket. You also have the bigs who understand their roles in Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson, taking care of the dirty work inside to free up the perimeter guys.
But the guy leading the way has to be Isaiah Thomas, all 5′ 9″ of him. Often the smallest guy on the court, the guy almost always brings the biggest game. The last time we saw a guy this size attacking the basket so fearlessly, Allen Iverson was leading the league in scoring. In many ways, Isaiah is a perhaps less explosive, but a more controlled version of Iverson. Knowing when he needs to take over and when to hand it over to his teammates, he’s what Larry Brown wished Iverson would learn to be. In the Golden State upset, Isaiah got going by relentlessly attacking the rim, time and time again finishing over giants 7-foot Bogut and 6-10 Draymond Green, drawing the whistle and creating space for teammates.
While the Eastern Finals is probably as far as Boston will make it this season, that’s a tremendous success for a team supposedly still in ‘rebuilding’ mode. With a bunch of guys who are already good enough to consistently make the playoffs in the East for the next 5 years, and already playing and developing together for the last 2 seasons, things for looking bright for the Celtics. Armed with 3 1st-round picks and 5 2nd-round selections this June, Boston are in a very enviable place. They have the Brooklyn, Dallas and their own 1st round pick, which are likely to be end up in the range of picks #3-5, 12-16, 20-23. With some lucky ping pong ball bounces, that Brooklyn pick might even turn out to be a top 2 pick (imagine the Celtics adding Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram!) At worst, they should land Buddy Hield. Being an already strong defensive unit, Hield is precisely what they need to support Isaiah Thomas on offense.
Boston probably won’t be drafting 8 rookies, so some trades are bound to happen come draft day. There’ve been quite a few intriguing moves discussed this season, like the trade for Demarcus Cousins, though that might cost Boston Jae Crowder, 2 1st round picks and some other guys to make the salaries work. Cousins is THE best centre in the NBA, but I’m just not too sure if he’s a good fit for the way Brad Stevens has the team setup right now. it might be better to move their lower 1st round picks and 2nd round picks to try to move up in the draft, more future 1st round picks, or decent role players, especially help in the paint.
If you haven’t been paying attention, look out because the Celtics are going to be one of the most exciting teams to watch from now until the playoffs and into the offseason.